Free Schools and Creationism

The BCSE has written to the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP at the Department for Education expressing our concern regarding Free Schools and Creationism.


PDF versions of the letter and memorandum can be obtained from our resources page.


The full text of the letter is as follows:

20th March 2011

Dear Minister,



The British Centre for Science Education wishes to express its extreme concern at the application of the Everyday Champions Church, and the stated ambitions of other biblical literalist groups, to run a Free School, especially since such schools are not bound by the National Curriculum.

The Everyday Champions Church exemplifies what you yourself have described as “inappropriate faith groups using this legislation to push their own agenda.” As you are no doubt aware, teaching in schools run by such groups forced a revision last year of the original friskolor legislation, subjecting Swedish free schools to the same regulations as traditional schools, and requiring religious free schools to ensure that teaching is objective. I feel sure that you do not wish to find yourself having to introduce such remedial legislation, with all the disruption that this would entail.

According to Pastor Evans [1],“Creationism will be embodied as a belief at Everyday Champions Academy, but will not be taught in the sciences. Similarly, evolution will be taught as a theory. We believe children should have a broad knowledge of all theories in order that they can make informed choice.”  This is a disingenuous evasion (but note the scientifically illiterate use of “theory” to convey uncertainty). ECC is host to a lecture series and website, http://www.creationscience.co.uk/ which describe Young Earth Creationism as scientifically superior to established biological and Earth science, maintaining for example that the Grand Canyon was carved out by Noah's flood, and to a lecture series based on this.“ A broad knowledge of all theories” is established creationist code for this position. In addition, embodiment of creationism “as a belief” can only mean that on this topic science itself is subordinate to religious considerations, and that the central concepts of the natural sciences, as developed over the past 350 years, must be rejected as doctrinally unsound.

As if to avoid ambiguity, John Harris, ECC’s lecturer on the subject, added (loc. cit.) that “EVOLUTION IS A RELIGION…  Uneducated, dogmatic, close minded, humanistic, evolutionists trying to impose their false religion on mankind! What’s worse, is that they deceitfully call it SCIENCE. It is nothing but a religious worldview that has NOTHING to offer to science or humanity other than lies.”

We do not see how such theologically motivated disdain for our knowledge of the natural world can be tolerated within the publicly funded educational system.

The ECC proposal is already a cause célèbre among creationist churches, and others are preparing to follow where ECC is leading. As shown in the attached memorandum, this is part of a concerted attack on science education by committed believers in biblical inerrancy and literalism. We cannot believe that it is your intention to advance their clearly articulated agenda, but if you allow such people to establish their own schools, using public money, it will be the unavoidable consequence of your policies.

The British Centre for Science Education is neutral on all matters of religion, and its concern in these matters is motivated entirely by concern about educational issues.



Respectfully,

Professor Paul S. Braterman, MA, DPhil., DSc., for BCSE

We have attached a memorandum to the letter as follows:


Memorandum 
Free Schools and Creationists - A Dangerous Mix

Who we are

The BCSE[1] is a faith neutral voluntary organisation that monitors and counters Creationist activity in UK schools.  We maintain a comprehensive database of Creationist activity spanning the past decade or so and write to you to lay out our concerns regarding the possible abuse of the new Free Schools system by Creationists.

We base our fears on clear evidence of previous deception demonstrated by several different Creationist groups around the country over a period of years.

Whilst Creationists are generally perceived by the public (and perhaps many legislators?) as amusing, misguided but ultimately harmless eccentrics, we here provide evidence that they have already successfully infiltrated the existing education system, to the detriment of pupils, despite the clear guidance and repeated comment from successive governments.  To protect the Free Schools systems from abuse, and to avoid this flagship initiative becoming a target for mockery and condemnation, additional safeguards need to be implemented.

We will first place the Everyday Champions Academy application in context, then lay out some concise examples of past Creationist activity to substantiate our claims, and conclude with a brief summary of some of the potential problems that pertain to Free Schools specifically, together with suggestions for possible safeguards and solutions.


Everyday Champions, a taste of things to come

Everyday Champions Church is one of a network of Pentecostal congregations who sincerely believe that the Bible as we have it is the infallible word of God and literally true throughout, that biologists and earth scientists have been misled by a Godless materialism, and that Creationism offers an alternative that is superior, both doctrinally and scientifically. It shares these beliefs with a number of interlocking organisations, such as Genesis Agendum, the World Around Us website, and Truth in Science. A more recent association is with the Intelligent Design movement, as typified by Centre for Intelligent Design, with inspiration from the Seattle-based Discovery Institute Centre For Science and Culture, both of which, despite firm denials that Intelligent Design is a form of Creationism, propagate Creationist and even Young Earth Creationist materials, and count prominent Creationists among their public supporters.

In their assault on science education in the UK, these Creationists assure the unwary that they do not oppose the teaching of evolution, but merely wish to supplement it with knowledge of alternatives. Inspection of their materials shows that this is code for misrepresenting evolution, claiming that weaknesses and controversies exist where they do not, and teaching evolution in such a way that it will not appear credible. In addition, Everyday Champions Church affirms that Creationism will be embodied as a belief[2], thus, we are invited to assume, abiding by the DfE requirement that "Creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas must not be taught as valid scientific theories" (emphasis added). Such an interpretation makes a mockery of the requirement.

Everyday Champions Church itself hosts lectures in which the audience is told that the Grand Canyon was caused by run-off from Noah's flood, and that the flood was able to cover the mountains because the mountains have only been fully raised up more recently, within the last very few thousand years. In a lengthy statement of views their lecturer has informed us that evolution "teaches our children lies! It teaches our children to have no morality! It teaches our children to reject observable science, common sense, rationality and logic!" and that "Evolution is a religion … Uneducated, dogmatic, close minded, humanistic, evolutionists trying to impose their false religion on mankind! What’s worse, is that they deceitfully call it SCIENCE. It is nothing but a religious worldview that has NOTHING to offer to science or humanity other than lies”.[2],[3]

It should be also remembered that in the tradition to which Everyday Champions Church belongs, salvation depends on faith alone, and part of that faith is belief in the infallibility of the Bible. Thus the scene is set for students to be taught a strawman version of evolution, presented with Creationist alternatives decked out in pseudoscientific trappings, invited to choose, and told that their salvation depends on rejecting evolution.

Vardy Schools

Copious bad publicity for the last Labour government regarding the Vardy schools involved Creationist materials produced by the school’s head of science and repeated claims from pupils and (prospective) staff regarding fundamentalist challenges at job interviews and Creationist activity in science lessons.  None of this was aided by TV interviews with the school’s Principal in which he confirmed his view that the earth is just six to ten thousand years old, in blatant denial of all modern scientific evidence and opinion

Truth in Science

Truth in Science is an organisation of Creationists who believe that Genesis (including the story of Noah's Ark) represents actual Earth history They regard evolution as evil and incompatible with Christianity, and sincerely believe[4] that it morally corrupts the minds of those who accept it.

In September 2006 this group sent to each and every UK school and college a well produced set of DVDs and lesson plans, written so as to promote a mixture of old style Creationism and its lab-coated offspring, Intelligent Design, but formatted to look like up-to-date mainstream science. Science teachers were outraged. These materials were sent with covering letters to the schools claiming, against all the facts, that they met the requirements of the National Curriculum.  When exposed, Truth in Science fell back on their well rehearsed position of claiming anti-religious bias and discrimination. Letters were written, an Early Day Motion was voted on and DfE teachers’ guidelines[5] were issued to schools pointing out that neither Creationism nor Intelligent Design had no scientific basis.

Despite claiming on their own web site that evolution was simply the initial focus of their actions, TiS did nothing else until the end of 2009/beginning of 2010.  Their next attempt to get into UK science lessons was more sophisticated and once again singled out modern biology. This time the material consisted of a bogus textbook, Explore Evolution, written in the US by a Discovery Institute team including a Young Earth Creationist but with a UK foreword misrepresenting DfE guidelines in order to claim compatibility with them. The book is well produced, and well disguised, but detailed examination[6] shows it to be devoid of scientific merit. Moreover, this time it was sent directly to school librarians, presumably because they would be less likely than science teachers to recognise its true nature.

Genesis Agendum - Anti-Science Web Resource

Another group called “Genesis Agendum” managed to persuade the Times Education Supplement in Scotland that denying Darwin was a tenable scientific position and that their web-based collection of Creationist canards disguised as science was a resource suitable for teachers and students. While carefully avoiding the word "Creationism" this site offers a farrago of traditional Creationist claims and long-dead arguments, with which the authors have presumably convinced themselves, and most assuredly hope to convince innocent young minds, that established biology and earth science are in turmoil and inferior to a resuscitated Creationist paradigm.[7]

Genesis Agendum also publishes a booklet[8] by Sylvia Baker, of whom more below, in which she maintains that evolution is false because it cannot explain the origin of the human eye.

Centre for Intelligent Design

The “Centre for Intelligent Design”[9], which opened in September 2010 in Glasgow, is now sending speakers to Scottish schools, and is also active south of the border. It claims that it is concerned only with science and that Intelligent Design is not a form of Creationism. However, its chairman, vice-chairman, and director belong to Evangelical biblical literalist churches, its affiliates include prominent members of Truth in Science, it regularly disseminates material from UncommonDescent, a Creationist website, and it markets Creationist materials including Explore Evolution at lectures. Much of its material is based on that of the Discovery Institute, and a lecture tour by Discovery Institute member Michael Behe, perhaps the only professor in the US to have his materials publicly disowned by his own department,[10] was the highlight of their launch.

Christian Schools Trust (CST) claims to represent around 50 private Christian schools [according to the CST website [link; accessed 24/3/11], although Graham Coyle (Chair of CST leadership team) now informs us that the actual number is just over 40] across the UK, one of whose primary goals[11] is "To lay foundations of Biblical Christian truth in the area of education." CST was founded by Sylvia Baker [So described by the Church Times here but we are advised by Mr Graham Coyle (Chair of the CST leadership team) that she was not a founder], a prominent Creationist best known for her book, Bone of Contention, whose connection with Genesis Agendum we have already mentioned. Ms Baker concluded while an undergraduate “that the theory of evolution was not supported by the evidence and that the Bible could be fully trusted when it taught of a ‘six-day’ Creation"[12] and that "evolutionism [sic] is wrong and Creationism is right.”[13]  Ms Baker tells us[14] that she has "had the privilege of teaching school science from a Creationist viewpoint and have seen how beneficial it can be for the pupils concerned", and that " many key figures in the history of science have been young-earth Creationists and the position led them directly to very fruitful scientific discoveries", and cites as examples of useful scientific debate within the Creationist framework "the location of the Flood boundaries in the geological column and the nature and limits of the created kinds".

We have discussed Ms Baker's opinions, both about the scientific validity of Creationism and about its place in the curriculum, at this level of detail because she is now a member of the CST management committee and advises its schools on the teaching of evolution. At least five CST schools have already submitted full proposals.

The Discovery Institute

We mention this Seattle-based thinktank because of its connections, described above, with the UK Creationist movement. It is an equal opportunity anti-evolution body, running the range from those who accept the fact of evolution but deny that it could have occurred by natural means, to out-and-out Young Earth Creationists. It is particularly notable for promoting "teach the controversy" bills in State legislatures, and for its declaration[15] that “in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism” (emphasis in original) and that “Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

Specific problems with faith schools attached to biblical literalist churches

It is worth taking careful note of the fact that the activities we have mentioned have not arisen as a result of a lone fundamentalist happening across an opportunity and hap-hazardly seizing upon it.  The Creationists mentioned above are organised in interlocking groups, who genuinely think that modern biology is an evil influence on the minds of innocent youngsters and are driven by a fundamentalist fervour to prevent this evil.  They seek out and even manufacture such opportunities wherever they can.

It is already clear that fundamentalist churches, and three other groups associated with them, wish to take advantage of the freedoms accorded by Free Schools status, and all too obvious how they will handle the teaching of the natural sciences.  We know from what they have already said that they will appeal to our society’s acute sense of fair play by claiming that children should be exposed to both sides of a non-existent "controversy", while grossly, albeit perhaps, sincerely, distorting background scientific information[16] to give the impression that such a controversy really exists. Innocent minds should not be exposed to such distortions of reality, especially when presented with the full authority of the educational system and, implicitly for publicly funded schools, your government.

Given that such groups exist and given that their track record of trying to sabotage science lessons in the Education system, we need to look at the kinds of issues that may arise within the Free Schools programme.

This list is not exhaustive but we believe it covers the main areas of concern that would arise should a Creationist group obtain approval to run a Free School.

Hiring of staff

Most Creationist groups do not tolerate any plurality of views and would therefore seek to employ fellow fundamentalists.  They are unlikely to hire science teachers that don’t share their biblical literalist views.  It seems highly likely that prospective teachers who believe themselves to have been rejected for this reason will emerge, giving rise to unfavourable press coverage, and to employment discrimination and human rights issues in both English and European law.

Teaching of Biology

How would a Creationist science teacher present modern biology?  Grant for a moment that the content of GCSE exams and the recent introduction of the English Baccalaureate mean that actual biology is taught.  Grant also that it is taught as stated.  Even in these circumstances, the best that we can hope for, children's understanding of biology will be undermined by the teachers themselves or other staff, who will not wish to see the children corrupted and who will often themselves be persuaded by the pretensions of "Creation science". Such teachers will set out to persuade the children that it is not true.  In the wider society this will be done either by pseudoscientific arguments meant to impress those who don’t know better or by theological arguments that acceptance of the science is incompatible with true belief and will result in damnation.

Teaching of other sciences

How could a fundamentalist undermine biology to say nothing of earth science,without also undermining the pupils’ confidence in the rest of modern science?  We don’t know.  For example, Creationist groups around the UK take routinely deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming, as part of an overall stance that "establishment" science is an atheist conspiracy[17].

School visits to science or natural history museums will present a real dilemma for a teacher who honestly believes that such institutions are effectively damning innocents to torment.

Teaching of Religious Education

The fundamentalist doctrines that come along with Creationism are not noted for their moderation.  Submission of the woman to the man during marriage, opposition to the equality laws regarding homosexuality, and a general intolerance of other faiths are almost universal.

In the same way that a recent Channel 4 documentary[18] exposed the teaching of intolerance and hatred, we fear that such activities are highly likely to occur, and eventually bound to come to light, in schools run by Creationist groups.

We recall, in this context, that the Christian Schools Trust mounted a legal challenge to the prohibition of corporal punishment.

Summary

We do take comfort from your previous confirmation that Free Schools will not be exempted from obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.  We intend to make full use of this act to attempt to monitor the materials being used in the schools and we will publicise anything that promotes nonsense as science or which undermines the children’s understanding of science in any way.

We believe that for the reasons set out here, the DfE should carefully vet Free School applications and be very wary of approving applications from Creationist groups.  We believe that refusal to fund Creationist groups out of the public purse is necessary to protect science education for UK children.  Failure to exercise this caution is likely to lead to regular media coverage that could be detrimental to both the Government and the Education sector.

The BCSE is a single issue faith neutral group and has no political axe to grind regarding Free Schools.  We also fervently support free speech and have no wish to outlaw or silence Creationist groups.  We believe that science is both central to the modern world and vital for the future cultural and economic development of the UK.  We want science taught as science, and not undermined in publicly funded schools.  Up until now, with the possible exception of certain academies in the north-east, Creationist infiltration into publicly funded schools has been limited to a small scale with, at most, just a few individuals within any one school promoting their anti-science agenda.  Without careful management and strong leadership from you, Free Schools could see anti-science taught incorrectly as fact to UK children with public money.

I am sure you don’t want to be remembered as the Secretary of State who opened the door to Noah's Ark sailing into biology classes. Complete (if Everyday Champions Church is to be believed [2],[3]) with dinosaurs.

[1]http://bcseweb.org.uk/
[2]http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6069260
[3]http://www.creationscience.co.uk/
[4] “It is a concern to many when science is wrongly taught in our schools, colleges and universities. In particular, macroevolution is taught as though it were a proven and unchallengeable fact. For our children and grandchildren, God is thus robbed of His glory. Young people are encouraged into a way of thinking that leads to atheism, hedonism, despair and moral bankruptcy. Belief in a Creator is often ridiculed and anyone advocating such a view is portrayed as either foolish or naïve.” This is an extract from the “Truth in Science” manifesto [http://web.archive.org/web/20040402093215/www.takeheed.net/MARCH+2004.htm] accessed 6/3/11.
[5] http://www.teachernet.gov.uk/docbank/index.cfm?id=11890
[6] http://bcseweb.blogspot.com/p/evolution-exposed.html
[7] http://bcseweb.blogspot.com/search/label/World%20Around%20Us
[8] Seeing and Believing: Evolution, the Eye and Sight
[9] http://bcseweb.blogspot.com/search/label/C4ID
[10] http://www.lehigh.edu/bio/news/evolution.htm
[11] http://www.christianschoolstrust.co.uk/who_we_are
[12] http://www.biblicalcreation.org.uk/bcs_publications/Origins46_7.pdf
[13] http://www.biblicalcreation.org.uk/bcs_publications/Origins46_6.pdf
[14] http://www.biblicalcreation.org.uk/introductory_articles/Origins5051-Dialog.pdf
[15] http://www.antievolution.org/features/wedge.pdf
[16] http://bcseweb.blogspot.com/search/label/World%20Around%20Us
[17] http://bcseweb.blogspot.com/search/label/AGW
[18] http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/episode-guide/series-80/episode-1